Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Present and Unaccountable

I spent the last week of August at a retreat at the IMS. It was...well, here are some different levels of summary:

Casual conversation:
The retreat was fabulous! Very intense. I didn't want to leave. I'm going to have to go back as soon as I can.

Somewhat more in-depth:
The setting is idyllic. The retreat centre is in rural Massachussetts, a few miles outside of Barre. The centre itself is a big old house that was first built as someone's weekend home, then taken over by a monastery (if I remember correctly) and eventually bought by IMS in the seventies. Around the centre are farms--there's one place that seems to train horses and give horse riding lessons, there's another place that has a roadside stand where you can buy tomatoes, and there's another place that sells maple syrup. The only thing all the farm houses have in common is that they without exception have animal statues in their front yards. Seems a bit redundant, given that there are real live deer and rabbits and turkeys that are very likely to be in someone's yard on any given day.

The schedule was intense. Up at 5:15 (the bell actually started ringing at 5:05; the first morning I heard the bell, saw that it was dark outside, looked at my bedside clock, and said out loud "You have GOT to be kidding me"), sit for half an hour, breakfast, chores (or "washing-dishes meditation", as I came to think of it), then alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation for the rest of the day, with breaks for lunch and tea, and some instruction by the teachers, and the occasional chance to speak directly to the teachers.

The teachers were brilliant. As compassionate and insightful as you'd expect of meditation teachers, with all kinds of personal anecdotes that were useful and insightful (sitting with fear and aversion when her meditation hut in Thailand was invaded by a large lizard; a teacher's experience sending metta to a tiger that wanted to share his walking-meditation path with him). The only funny thing about them was their Boston accents. They weren't noticible at first, besides a slightly mush-mouthed approach to consonants, but eventually I realized that they were telling us to pay attention to our "tho-wats." I had a hard time not grinning every time that word came up.

The walking meditation often made me grin too. To stay mindful of what our bodies were doing, it was often helpful to walk very slowly. The result was that there were a hundred people walking baaaaack....aaaand.....foorrrthhhh....looking like nothing so much as the Ministry of Silly Walks, Slow Division. (I nominated myself the Undersecretary in Charge of Falling Over for No Reason.)

The other retreatants gave me a lot of stuff to think about...or rather, led to a lot of thoughts arising. There were a lot more young people there than the last time I went--even one kid who'd just begun college, but over a dozen in their (our) late twenties. There wasn't all that much variety in backgrounds (Rick the pipe-fitter seemed to be the only one with a blue-collar job) and the few people of colour were very few (but present!) and the bumper stickers on the cars were reasonably uniform (three occurrences of "Let's not elect Bush in 2004 either", three "Free Tibet", several meditation in-jokes). But it was interesting to notice my reactions to all these people. How do I react to people I find attractive? how is it different from my reaction to unattractive people? Who do I tend to be impatient with? whom do I smile indulgently towards? My favourite was probably the kooky old guy with the haystack of white hair, multiple piercings (including an alarming septum ring), a tattoo that said "VEGAN", and a "Veterans for Peace" hat festooned with buttons advocating various progressive causes. He must have some interesting stories to tell.

My roommate was neat. I was hoping to get to talk to her at the end of the retreat, but unfortunately she left partway through. We hadn't been doing a good job of keeping silence: we always seemed to be having conversations at 3 am, whether on account of one of us waking the other with a nightmare or by tripping over her (!) or on account of the truly impressive thunderstorm. Pity that we didn't get to talk in an officially-sanctioned way. I felt like we had a lot in common: she's a massage therapist, and I introduce myself as a massage therapist at parties.

I didn't want to leave at the end of the retreat, and I'm thinking of making a week or two-week retreat a yearly thing. I felt like it was too long between my first retreat and this one, and I think I can make a lot of progress with more time for concentrated effort. I'm even fantasizing about doing a three-month retreat. I was talking to some people about their experiences with it, and it makes me want to put all my other plans on hold so I can do this.

More detail than you need to know:
I was terrified going into the retreat. I was carrying a heavy load of remorse and fear, after having carelessly hurt (possibly quite badly) three or four people who are very dear to me. (Sordid story which I have no intention of going into here.) I was expecting to have storms of emotion break over my head as soon as I sat down to meditate. I was bracing myself for tears, rage, despair--all these big cathartic emotions. What I got instead was endless repetitions of the Sesame Street theme song: I spent the first six days of the retreat coping with the wandering of my mind. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was probably exactly what I needed. I got to see exactly how undisciplined my mind is usually, and how much time I spend lost in fantasies or memories or planning. It was also a chance to encourage my mind to settle down, in a gentle compassionate manner. My natural tendency is, when I see my mind wandering during (say) metta meditation, to start chewing it out: "Look, motherfucker, do you want to be free of suffering or don't you? Settle down already!" The teachers emphasized over and over that the thing to do is just to notice the wandering and gently bring your attention back to whatever it is that you're attending to, rather than getting upset about the wandering itself. Hmm. Tricky, that.

One of the most healing interactions I had was with one of the resident chipmunks. Since everyone at the IMS moves slowly and deliberately and has taken it upon themselves to not harm any living being, the wild critters around there are not shy. The chipmunks in particular will climb on you at any opportunity--no doubt in hopes of your having brought them food. I did get in the habit of sharing my teatime sunflower seeds with them. (Someone pointed out later that we'd been instructed to not feed the animals. oops.) Quite apart from how adorkable they looked as they stuffed their little cheeks, it was good to realize that they were willing to trust me. If a chipmunk climbs up onto you, all you have to do to prove yourself worthy of that trust is to stay still. Since I was feeling spectacularly, deeply untrustworthy, it was reassuring to be reminded that being trustworthy, like all "character traits", is simply a set of actions, and that I can earn people's or critters' trust if I give my attention to it. The Earth is crammed with meditation teachers.

One thing that got mentioned in the Dharma talks was the preliminaries to meditation: Before you even start to meditate, the Buddha's instruction is to practice generosity (by supporting the communities of meditators) and to live a moral life so that your mind won't be preoccupied with remorse. Huh. Clever lad, that Buddha fellow.

The catharsis came, eventually. Once the tears started it seemed like they would never stop. At the end of the retreat I was still in full-blown Repentence mode, and in no way ready to go back to quotidian responsibilities.

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